Friday the 13th

Friday the 13th (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Marcus Nispel
viewed: 03/12/11

Once upon a time, there was a kid named Jason who drowned at Camp Crystal Lake while his camp counselors were busy getting it on and not minding the child.  In the original Friday the 13th (1980), horny young camp counselors were finding themselves slashed and skewered as a vengeful mysterious figure doled out the punishment for their sinful ways, accompanied by that weird “ch-ch-ch” soundtrack element, indicating the killer is near.  And in that original film, it turned out to be Jason’s mother who was killing the naughty generation and eventually is killed for her efforts.  But at the end of that film, a hand bursts from the lake, suggesting that Jason would pick up his mother’s mantle.

And for the next nine to ten installments (indeed, it spawned that many sequels), Jason did just that.  Donning a hockey mask and moving into 3-D, New York City, outer space, and eventually into a confrontation with another popular horror figure of the 1980’s, Freddy Kreuger in Freddy vs. Jason (2003).

Now, I’d really have to say that a hockey mask-wearing fiend who never speaks a word, just appears ominously, with the accompanying “ch-ch-ch” isn’t so much of an iconic “character” as he is an iconic image.  He’s got an origin story, meant to evoke some sympathy, and really, in the first film, in which he’s not even the killer, the narrative has more of a pronounced twist…and a narrative.

While a number of 1980’s slasher films have been re-made of late, A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), My Bloody Valentine (2009), Halloween (2007), Dawn of the Dead (2004) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), an increasingly popular approach to movie franchises is not simply to re-make them, but to “re-boot” them.

Director Marcus Nispel directed the re-make of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but here with the Friday the 13th film, the film is neither a pure re-make or a pure sequel, adapting the narrative that evolved over the first four of the 1980’s series and setting the events in action in the present day.  So, the film opens with the “once upon a time”, Jason drowns, horny counselors, vengeful mom, skewering, slicing, cutting, and a hockey mask and now we have a new group of ethnically diverse young adults, horny and pot-smoking, or perhaps more “good”, getting chopped, sliced, eviscerated by the giant lump named Jason.

I liked the reversioning of the story (it’s hardly a sacred text), but what we’re left with is more modern slasher film in which the characters are all quickly drawn “types”, so generic film to film, you could possibly intercut them in any of the other re-makes and have a hard time telling which character got killed in which movie.  And with a villain who never speaks, merely menaces and then kills, you find yourself looking for something more substantial to hang the reasoning on.

The slasher films of the late 1970’s – 1980’s were an interesting study in fears and violence, but also depicted often a very puritanical vengeance on the nubile young people.  The naughty ones always got killed.  The goody-goodies, virginal heroine was the usual survivor.  There have been analyses about the subconscious messages about punishments.  And from those earlier films, the modern bogyman was crystalized.  I have questioned what the significance of this wave of re-makes could come to represent, but it seems mostly that it’s mere cashing in on name brands, modernizing films that might seem too “antique” perhaps to a young contemporary audience, and perhaps at the least cynical, somewhat of homage.  But these films have been so corporate, so uninspired, I don’t think that there has been a single one that has really risen to any true level of merit.

And that is true for this one as well.  It’s neither utterly dire nor reasonably decent.  More than anything it just makes me say, “Why?”  And when it comes down to it, that it’s just cynical moviemaking aiming at the marketing buck rather than half a notion of an idea, I just have to say, “Bleah”.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) movie poster

(2010) dir. Samuel Bayer
viewed: 04/30/10 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

This year’s latest film franchise re-boot is A Nightmare on Elm Street, a re-make of Wes Craven’s signiture film from 1984 of the same name. The horror/slasher genre has been gobbling up and spitting out video nasty titles from the 1970’s and 1980’s with a vengeance in the last couple of years.  Though it’s probably just another trend in Hollywood, where new ideas come at a rare premium and re-makes or re-boots or just using a recognizable title come by far on the cheap.

Knowing that I was going to see this film, I watched Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street just a couple of days prior, reminding myself of that film which I hadn’t seen in a long time.  Now resultantly, my viewing of the 2010 version was very colored by that contrast.  And I have to say that all the things that I felt were the best about the original are things all but forsaken in this new version.

The original concept, of a mutilated killer with a glove of knife-fingers who comes to teenagers in their dreams to torment and kill them, was original in itself, but allowed Craven to created a number of visually surprising moments, which were semi-comical but striking, and playing heavily with the dream logic as a recurrent theme.  It’s the Freudian elements along with the story repressed by the parents of a crime they commited against a child killer, that made the film fresh and why it continues to be interesting.  And the film did tap into the classic elements of the genre, giving a cast of teens a setting and place of believability.

The interesting twist that the new film takes is by putting notable actor Jackie Earle Haley (who has played a child molestor before in Little Children (2006), which brought him back to Hollywood’s eye), the film relies a bit more on his performance and the psychology of his character.  In other words, in this film, Freddy Krueger, is more naturalistic, more like a human being, not a morphing Plastic Man-like character who could stretch his arms across an alley way or have his face get pulled off for a shock gag.   And he murders with his glove exclusively, not capable of some stunts that Freddy achieved in the original.

And with the characters, the backstory is deeper.  And here I will warn of a spoiler because I will unveil one new plot twist here, in that in this version, Freddy wasn’t a murderer, but a child molestor.  And all of the children in the preschool where he worked, all of whom he was to have molested, are now his victim targets.  As in the original, Freddy’s story, that the parents hunt him down and burn him alive and then try to pretend that he never existed, is revealed as the film works its way through the story.  But this further detail and connection makes the whole thing that much harder to believe.

The children were all supposed to be five years old.  And the assumption the film makes is that none of them remember going to pre-school together, none of them were taken to therapy, none of them exhibit any symptoms of child abuse.  The parents successfully eradicated Freddy (until now).  And that makes the whole thing just that much harder to swallow.  And disturbing on the parents’ side.  They are so committed to hiding the truth that they are angry when it returns, but it never really came out in the wash.

I suppose if the subtext were stronger or available or investigated, this could have worked in a way, the return of the memory of child abuse on a whole class of pre-schoolers, and that the villain is somehow the embodiment of the memory as well as the perpetrator, that their psychoses are real perhaps and that Freddy is more symbolic and questionably real.  But … that’s not how they took it.

Additional to this, the “teenagers” do not any one of them look like teenagers.  The actors are all 22-25 years old and they look it.  They are young and beautiful, but young and beautiful 20-somethings, not teens.  And while an argument could often be made like that about casting choices, at least in the original they seemed younger, more believably younger.  I mean, it took until they had a scene at the high school until I figured out that these were supposed to be teenagers for sure.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (the re-make) is not a horrible film, but it lacks the exact elements that made the original worthwhile, valuable, interesting, shocking.  The film does cast a few mini-homages toward the original, re-doing a scene or two (the hand/claw coming up between the girl’s legs in the bathtub, the bloody body in a bodybag dragged through the school hallway).  But what is interesting, one of the very effective shots in the original film, Freddy looming over a sleeping girl’s bed by “stretching through the wall”, originally done with latex and a real person pushing through, is redone with digital FX.  And it looks like a whole lot of other things done with digitial FX and is not nearly so striking or shocking as the original “analog” effect.

And that is perhaps true of the whole shebang.  Haley as Freddy is creepy, sure.  The original Freddy, even in the first film before he fell to such a caricature, had a more comic taunt, a surprise around every corner.  And the effect, utilizing the elements of the surreal, made for a much richer film.  So, as I noted, here in Nightmare-land we have a renewed commitment to the realistic, the naturalistic, the more believable and grounded villain…who comes in one’s dreams to rip them to shreds.

My Bloody Valentine

My Bloody Valentine (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Patrick Lussier
viewed: 02/03/08 at Century San Francisco Centre, SF, CA

“Nothing says ‘date movie’ like a 3D ride to hell!”

I loved the tag line.  It wasn’t like I’d even really considered seeing the film, but then came the point where I just wanted to go see some garbage movie.  Oddly enough, there were a slough of them out there.  My top choice would have been Outlander (2008) which some vikings versus aliens thing.  But there were others too, The Uninvited (2009), The Unborn (2009), and heck, even Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009).  But timing being what it was, the remake of the 1981 slasher film, My Bloody Valentine, in 3-D no less, was the gambit of the day.

You know, back in the day of the slasher film, the early 1980’s, I was a teen, ripe for the genre, a little too young to go see them in the theater, but that’s what HBO and stuff was for.  See the horny young people get slaughtered for no apparent reason with blood, blood, and more blood.  And it seemed that every holiday had its own slasher film: John Carpenter probably opened the door here with Halloween (1978), which was followed by Friday the 13th (1980) (of which is also about to have a re-make released), April Fool’s Day (1986), Happy Birthday to Me (1981)…the list goes on.  But of these, I had not ever seen, I think, the original My Bloody Valentine, or if I had, I’d forgotten that I’d seen it.

The revival of the genre today, mostly in re-makes, is probably more about the lack of creativity than anything.  Let’s face it, are slashers really the Id of today’s society?  I mean, there’s actually been a lot of pretty interesting criticism about the original slasher film genre.  The revival is largely due to the fact that we need to see modernly-clad young people getting slaughtered, not any fashion nightmares on top of the gore!

And the 3-D aspect.  Which is a trend that I predict will ultimately fail to hang on, though there is more and more investment in it all the time so I could be terribly wrong.

I have to say, expectations were low.  But they were met to an extent.  The film starts up without a whole lot of story lay-out.  People start getting skewered on the pick-axe before you really know who is who.  And then suddenly, the film flashes forward 10 years.  So, it’s a little confusing, I think, but not that that really matters.  Why some miner decides to suddenly kill every living being and cut out their hearts and place them in candy heart trays really doesn’t get a whole lot of explanation.  Miners and hearts?

The movie has a few elements of fun.  There is an interesting little person who plays a sexy small desk clerk with a dog.  And the whole scene with the woman running around in full-frontal nudity, waving a gun, hiding under a bed, running amok totally naked.  I know this sounds a little like I’m pointing it out for its sexual visual pleasure, but really it’s more just weird to have someone that naked onscreen for that long.  Take it for what you will.

And in the end, there is a mystery.  Is the killer the returned killer from before?  The returned young owner of the mine?  The sleazy sheriff?  But when the truth is revealed, it’s revealed with a barrage of reminder images to say: See?  It was him all along!  Here!  And Here! and Here! And Here!  And Here!  Get it?  Get it?  Get it?

It’s pretty annoying.

But there is always room for a sequel.  If the original slasher films taught us anything, it’s that sequels can beget sequels and beget sequels and beget sequels?  Get it?